Dexter baseball coach Pixley will be rotating players in, out at vacated positions

Members of the Dexter baseball team are (front row, from left) Dawson Jones, Cole Gibson, Adam Saylors, Andrew Dodson, Kasen Clark, Reece Justice (?), Mason Keena, Carson Bell, Brock Wyman, Trey Johnson, Will Norris, Logan Jelinek, (back row) Owen Bewley, Seth Teel, Clay Prance, Taylor Condict, Josh Kaufman, Bradyn Crockett, Garrett Henson, Riley Slusher, Peyton Driskill, Haden Hillis, Braxton Greenfield, Camden Riley and Kaeden Kennedy.

The Dexter baseball team will be a bit like a jigsaw puzzle for coach Drew Pixley when the season begins Saturday, March 21, at Malden.

The Bearcats lost starters at five positions from a team that struggled to a 3-19 finish. Right fielder Caleb Hoggard, shortstop Dawson Jones, catcher Ethan Kincy, second baseman Luke Thurston and left fielder Tyler Wright graduated.

“We’re in a unique situation where we’re not considered young but we’re not considered experienced,” Pixley said. “We’re kind of in that middle ground area. I’ll have a sophomore (Camden Riley) who’ll get a lot of playing time. I’ll have a freshman (Kaeden Kennedy) who’ll get a lot of playing time. Those are two boys who have played a lot of baseball in the past. It definitely shows in how they move, how they carry themselves on the field (and) what they already know how to do without having to teach them things.”

The Bearcats feature five seniors: Carson Bell, Garrett Henson, Haden Hillis, Trey Johnson and Mason Keena, who missed last season while battling mononucleosis.

Pixley doesn’t know who the right fits are for most of those open spots and expects to use several players at those positions.

Junior Peyton Driskill, Hillis and Henson should be key cogs on the pitching staff. Junior Riley Slusher, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, will not pitch this season.

“Haden Hillis will get a lot of innings this year,” Pixley said. “He’s been really good for us the past two years … of coming in in relief and getting in some key spots there. He’ll get a lot of starts this year.”

The Bearcats return several players with pitching experience but lost their top two innings producers from last season: Thurston and Wright. Two-thirds of the innings pitched graduated.

“(Adam) Saylors could get some innings,” Pixley said. “Andrew Dodson, one of the only lefties that we have, could get some innings. Camden Riley can throw. Peyton Driskill can throw. Bradyn Crockett can throw.”

Kennedy and Keena will be thrown into the pitching mix.

“I think Mason Keena might surprise everybody,” Pixley said. “That little dude can pitch and he doesn’t even know he can. He told me at practice last week that he gets up there and throws. He doesn’t know how to pitch, but he looks like a pitcher when he does it.”

The Bearcats will work to cut down on walks. They produced more walks than strikeouts for a team that posted a 9.89 ERA.

“That was our big spiel from the get-go last year, cutting down the amount of walks we had, trying to get that first pitch over for a strike,” Pixley said. “We wanted to keep our pitch count down, so we can keep our guys who start the game in the game longer, but at the same time give other teams less opportunities to score.”

Pixley said that a few of the pitchers were figuring it out late in the season.

“We were playing our best baseball those last two weeks of the season with those few guys that did figure it out on the mound,” Pixley said. “I think we were a pretty tough game for anybody. … I think the kids who were here last year were able to see that those guys figured out how to simplify and minimize the amount of misses they had and the more strikes they threw the more outs they got.”

Dexter struggled equally on offense, scoring an average of 2.5 runs per game with a team batting average of .243. The team was shut out seven times and scored no more than seven runs in any game.

“The biggest thing I tell them all the time is, ‘I don’t care if you hit a fly ball, if you hit a line drive, if you hit a ground ball, that’s perfectly fine. Those are good. Just make sure you hit it hard. You’re trying to drive the ball at all times,’ ” Pixley said.

Pixley said the team is focusing on the two-strike approach to cut down on strikeouts and putting the ball in play. The Bearcats batted under .100 in two-strike counts last season, he said.

“We got better at that at the end of the year,” Pixley said. “Hopefully, the guys coming back can keep it rolling a little bit.”

The Bearcats lost their top two hitters from a year ago. Kincy led the team with a .432 batting average and a 1.036 on-base plus slugging percentage. Wright was second on the team in batting average (.341) and OPS (.828).

Keena will spend much of his time at catcher but will play innings at other positions, including second base.

“That’s just a rotational spot right now,” Pixley said of replacing Thurston at second base. “It’s still early. Nobody’s really earned that spot. Mason’s been doing some stuff there. The Kennedy kid could get some time there. We’ve got another sophomore (Saylors) who could be put in situations where he’ll have an opportunity to earn a spot somewhere.”

Sophomore Camden Riley will see action at shortstop.

Henson, who started last season at third base before moving to first to make room for Slusher, will return to third. Slusher injured his shoulder in the final game of last season and is on a throwing program. He hasn’t been fully released, according to Pixley. He will likely play first base with senior Trey Johnson a candidate to fill in for Henson at third when the latter pitches.

“If (Slusher’s) not feeling right, Bradyn Crockett could get some time at first base,” Pixley said. “He’s got really good hands at first base. The plan is to move Garrett back over to the third base to cut the amount of throws that Slusher has to have. If Bradyn is hitting better than the both of them and I think he deserves to be in there … There’s not a spot set in stone for anybody. I think they’re going to have to produce to stay in the spot.”

Driskill and Hillis will see action in the outfield, as will Carson Bell, Braxton Greenfield and Josh Kaufman.

The Bearcats are beginning to transition their schedule to feature more SCAA teams. They’ve added a pair of games against Bell City and one apiece against Bernie and Bloomfield. They will meet Advance twice.

Campbell, Cooter, East Prairie, Oran, Portageville and Valle Catholic are no longer on the schedule.

“We haven’t played Stoddard County schools here in a while,” Pixley said. “Every once in a while, we’ll pick up Advance as a makeup game. … I think the plan is to work into playing these Stoddard County schools in the future. We’ve got four on the schedule this year. … I think there are a couple more schools that aren’t in our conference or that aren’t in our district that we’ll try to substitute with other Stoddard County schools.”

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